Toast of the town

Dualit is 60 years old. Oliver Duff looks at the life and times of an unlikely low-tech icon
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The Independent Online

It looks like a cross between an armoured car and a rocket launcher, clicking malevolently away on the kitchen counter. Detractors say it is over-sized, ridiculously expensive, burns the bread on one side and is no better than a cheaper Russell Hobbs model.

It looks like a cross between an armoured car and a rocket launcher, clicking malevolently away on the kitchen counter. Detractors say it is over-sized, ridiculously expensive, burns the bread on one side and is no better than a cheaper Russell Hobbs model.

Yet no modern café, restaurant, hotel or kitchen is complete without a Dualit toaster. Gordon Ramsay swears by his mammoth six-slotter, a "wonderful great beast". An estimated two million currently work in kitchens across the world, and a boom in sales over the past two decades has seen them acquire cult status in middle-class homes. So, as the Dualit approaches its 60th birthday, just what is the appeal of this icon?

The company's success lay in building long-lasting models that churned out hundreds of slices an hour for caterers and the Italian-style cafés springing up across 1950s Britain. The Dualit first came into being in a warehouse on Old Kent Road, London, in 1945; the brainchild of Max Gort-Barten, a Jewish Swiss-German engineer who came here after fleeing the Nazis.

He launched a small electric toaster for the domestic market, before turning to the catering trade to survive intense competition. The 1952 Dualit Vario - expensive at five guineas - was the first toaster in the world to have a built-in timer. What's more, it didn't pop the bread up when finished, instead keeping it warm inside until you pressed the eject lever.

Today, catering orders still make up half of all sales. Mario Matos, the proprietor of Martin's Coffee House, an award-winning café in Cambridge, says he has owned a Dualit for three years: "We go through 20 loaves a day. It's very durable and never breaks down. It means we make the best toast on the street."

Dualits remain expensive - setting you back up to £220 for a domestic model or £1,645 for a catering conveyor. But the company hangs its hat on the toaster's "robustly British" quality. Each worker makes a whole machine from start to finish and stamps their identification number on the base. When Dualits go wrong they are returned to their original assembler, many of whom have been working at the family firm for decades.

"Dualit toasters are hand-built and our lads have pride in their work," says Max's son, Leslie Gort-Barten, now managing director. "They're designed for longevity, and the looks are a bonus."

As if to prove that the Dualit is the Spitfire of the kitchen surface, 54-year-old Graham Blow, a former RAF pilot, recently bought a 130-slices-an-hour, polished chrome Dualit Vario four-slice toaster (RRP £177.13) for his Wiltshire home. "We used to have one in the officers' mess. It makes the best toast in the world, crisping the bread without drying it out. And you feel like you own a kitchen appliance which has more technology in it than the early spaceships."

Gort-Barten is vague about sales - wary of manufacturing competitors - but turnover has risen to more than £10m, from £200,000 in the 1970s, when 20 workers made 50 toasters a week. "What we used to make in a year we now make in a week," he says.

The real boom began in the 1970s when government grants allowed Dualit to hire a designer to fashion new shells. Wealthy urbanites snapped up the retro-industrial look and, when stainless-steel kitchens became de rigueur 10 years ago, every self-respecting loft conversion and farmhouse had one - or a cheap imitation. But does the Dualit still carry culinary clout now that everyone owns one? Is there any way back once Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen endorses your product?

Stephen Bayley, who set up the Design Museum and who owns a Dualit, says its success "stems from an ironic, retro relaunch in the 1980s". He adds: "I don't think ours is reliable. It just doesn't work terribly well. You are far better making toast like the French; clamp it in a wire frame and hold it over a naked flame."

Jeremy Langmead, the editor of style magazine Wallpaper*, says: "It is a well-designed and strong piece of machinery. But it has become so ubiquitous that people will get a little bored of them."He says the new best thing since sliced bread is the Jasper Morrison toaster, designed for Rowenta. "It is very beautiful, sleek and white. There's something slightly Barbarella about it - instead of pressing the piece of bread in you push a button and it is enclosed and slowly taken down into the toaster. It adds drama and excitement to toasting."

The answer for Dualit is to continue producing toasters that make great toast. And even if it does find itself slightly passé as it crosses its 60th milestone, it needn't worry. After all, in 10 years it will be time for another retro comeback.

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